The Redemptive Genius of Jackass

The Republic of Sarah creator Jeffrey Paul King on the show he always turns to for inspiration in times of difficulty and doubt.

“Showrunning is getting beaten to death with your own dream.”

That’s what my writer-producer friend Liz Friedman told me. I’m not sure if she’s the inventor of the phrase, but when I asked her what it was like to have a series on the air, that’s what she said. Showrunning is getting beaten to death with your own dream.

Having now done the job myself for the first time, I think she may’ve been understating it.

Jeffrey Paul King (second right) with his cast on the set of The Republic of Sarah.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a showrunner, and I’m especially proud to be doing the job on a project that means as much to me as The Republic of Sarah. The euphoria that washes over me every time the words “Created by Jeffrey Paul King” appear on the bottom of the screen is overwhelming. It’s truly a dream come true. That said, there are still plenty of moments when – just as Liz promised – it feels like I’m getting beaten to death with that dream. When it’s 4 a.m. and I’m several cans of Red Bull into a rewrite and I haven’t slept in a week and I’m absolutely convinced I’m the worst writer on the face of the earth, for example. And in those moments, I often find myself turning to an old friend for inspiration and relief. A guy who’s been in my life for 20 years now: Philip John Clapp, otherwise known as Johnny Knoxville.

Jackass premiered on October 1, 2000, and quickly became a global sensation. Beyond three seasons of the original MTV series, the franchise spawned a collection of movies that, to date, has pulled in nearly half a billion dollars of box-office revenue. That number becomes even more impressive when you realize that the budget of those films, combined, is in the neighborhood of $50 million. Talk about ROI. Given the staggering amount of black ink on Jackass’ balance sheet, it’s impossible to deny the brand’s financial success. What does seem to be up for debate, however, are its creative merits. You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who have Jackass 3D on their list of top 10 films of the decade. But that’s where I differ from most, if not all, of my peers.

As an overeducated hipster douchebag – I have a tattoo inspired by Brave New World (insert eye roll here) – I know what I’m supposed to say when asked about my favorite films and television. I’m supposed to fawn over Greta Gerwig and Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson. I’m supposed to binge-watch Atlanta and Fleabag and Black Mirror on repeat. I’m supposed to rattle off quotes from Freaks and Geeks like an evangelical citing Psalms. And I do. I love those directors, I love those shows, and Freaks and Geeks is an incredible piece of work. But if you ask me, so is Jackass. In the world of profit-driven, megacorporation studio content, I might even go so far as to suggest that Jackass is as close as you can get to high art.

The original Jackass gang.

There’s probably a senior thesis in the full explanation of why I believe this. One driven by a tangle of footnote-laden thoughts on cinéma vérité, gonzo journalism, Stanislavski, Beckett, Lynch, and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. For now, I’ll spare you 80 pages of academic jargon and instead offer a simple premise that I think most of us can agree with: the best film and TV content offers some truthful revelation about the human condition. That’s it, that’s all. And on that metric, Jackass earns staggeringly high marks.

Let’s start with the “truthful” part. People in the culture industry are obsessed with seeking out the truth in their work. Writers fret endlessly about their words and premises being authentic … directors spend hours designing shots that visually galvanize the veracity of scene … actors sweat and struggle in service of achieving a performance that is “grounded.” And yet, for all our talk of the truth, we Hollywood types are exceedingly good at lying. We mean well, of course. We want to create something that resonates with an audience, something deeply substantial that inspires and illuminates. It’s a noble ambition, but one that’s almost always achieved with deception. Our actors don false personalities, false states of mind, false physicalities – whatever it takes to inhabit the soul of the fictional person they’re playing. Our directors use a vast arsenal of camera tricks to make things look bigger, smaller, more important, less important, you name it. Our writers gift their characters brilliantly witty quips which they can deploy with perfect timing. And don’t even get me started on the emotional sleight of hand that can be accomplished with good music or good editing. Legendary director and choreographer Stanley Donen once said, “I think cinema is lies 24 frames a second.” It’s tough to argue with him.

“There are no stuntmen, because the cast themselves are the stuntmen.”

But Jackass tries. The franchise pulls very sparingly from Hollywood’s bag of tricks, and it’s a big part of what makes the whole thing so compelling. There are no actors, no fancy lighting setups, minimal – if any – hair, makeup, or wardrobe primping, and very little “direction” other than an effort to ensure that moments are legibly captured. There are no stuntmen, because the cast themselves are the stuntmen. So when Johnny Knoxville gets hurt … Johnny Knoxville gets hurt. There are no carefully placed musical cues to boost emotional moments, and there are no shifty edits to create conflict where there wasn’t any. (Looking at you on those last two, “reality TV.”) Perhaps most importantly – and yes, I understand how strange it is for a screenwriter to be saying this – there is very little of what you might call “story.” Whole skits are introduced, executed, and dismissed in mere seconds. Steve-O says he will get punched in the dick, Steve-O gets punched in the dick, Steve-O reacts to getting punched in the dick. No frills, no fluff, no bullshit. It’s a kind of “shut up and play the hits” approach to storytelling that I can’t help but admire.

One thing there’s a lot of in Jackass is imperfection. Mistakes. False starts. Johnny Knoxville climbing onto a giant rocket and it failing to launch properly. Bam Margera trying to punch somebody in the face and missing. Dave England getting tangled in an enormous slingshot before it can hurl him forward. On top of that, production elements are visible all over the place. You see the equipment they’re using to record the stunt … you see below-the-line workers moving in and out of frame … you hear people talking off camera. Normal mainstream media does everything it can to make you forget that what you’re watching has been carefully crafted by a team of hundreds. We remove boom shadows and crew reflections, we delete errant sounds, we hide lightboxes and bounce cards. Not so with Jackass. All pretension is stripped away, as nearly every scene reminds us: you are watching a movie. It’s a shocking amount of honesty to offer the viewer, but it’s that honesty that so endears the franchise to its fans.

Johnny Knoxville in a scene from Jackass: The Movie.

Which brings me to second part of what good content should achieve: some revelation about the human condition. Jackass ticks this box with alarming ease. Trouble is, most of what the franchise teaches us about ourselves is … uncomfortable. That we like violence, for example. That we’re entranced by bodily fluids and the scatological. That we’re titillated by the near-death experiences of others. That pain is funny. Hilarious, even. These ideas may be offensive to some, but that doesn’t make them any less true. We all have lower order, mammalian urges simmering just under the surface, and Jackass delights in reminding us of that with each and every Poo Cocktail or Riot Control Test or Alligator Tightrope or Wasabi Snooter.

And it’s exactly those skits – and dozens more like them – that I’ll pull up on YouTube when it’s 4 a.m. and I’m several cans of Red Bull into a rewrite and I haven’t slept in a week and I’m absolutely convinced that I’m the worst writer on the face of the earth. In those moments, Jackass reminds me to get over myself. It reminds me to stop trying so hard to be clever and just tell the story, to “shut up and play the hits.” It reminds me that mankind’s darker, cringier, more animalistic instincts are just as worthy of exploration as the admirable ones are. And maybe most importantly, it reminds me that there’s truth in imperfection. That the flaws in The Republic of Sarah are what give it a chance to resonate with viewers in a real way. Because when you’re getting beaten to death with your own dream, sometimes the only thing that can save you is a man eating a snow cone made with his own urine.

Jeffrey Paul King’s writing career began at the age of 20, when his first play was picked up for a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He relocated to Los Angeles soon thereafter, and was accepted into UCLA’s prestigious MFA Screenwriting Program. Upon graduating, he was hired on CBS’ Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Elementary, where he served as a writer/producer for all seven seasons of the show. Most recently, he created The Republic of Sarah for CBS Studios and the CW, and now serves as its showrunner. In his spare time, he’s been a professional opera singer, a published cartographer, a roller derby mascot, and a sideline reporter for Major League Soccer.